Opioid Death Toll Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better

By Victoria Kim 06/28/17

Experts say opioid-related deaths could reach a half million over the next decade.

hands holding a pile of white pills

Leading public health experts agree that the epidemic of people hooked on—and dying from—opioids will get worse before it gets better.

Just how bad will it get? STAT asked experts at 10 universities to project the death toll from fatal opioid overdose over the next decade. If the worst-case scenario of the 10 plays out, by 2027, we could be losing 250 people to heroin/painkillers every day in the United States. Right now, that number is 100 deaths per day.

This would mean that in 2027, 93,613 Americans will die because of opioids. That is, if fentanyl and carfentanil—synthetic opioids many times stronger than heroin—continue to drive up the death toll. 

The most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that in 2015, at least 33,000 people died from a fatal opioid overdose—with nearly half of them involving a prescription opioid like OxyContin or Percocet.

STAT’s best-case scenario, on the other hand, predicts 21,300 opioid deaths in 2027. Getting to this point will require a major investment in evidence-based treatment by the government, and a dedicated effort by the medical profession to try non-narcotic options before prescribing opioids to pain patients.  

But no matter the forecast for 2027, all of the experts agree that the opioid epidemic will get worse before it gets better. "The average toll across all 10 forecasts: nearly 500,000 deaths over the next decade."

“It took us about 30 years to get into this mess,” said Robert Valuck, professor at the University of Colorado-Denver’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. “I don’t think we’re going to get out of it in two or three.”

The experts say opioid deaths won’t begin to slow down until at least 2020. This is the time it will take to see the impact of government efforts to crack down on pill mills and overprescribing physicians, and to educate the public about opioid addiction.

Opioid addiction costs the US economy nearly $80 billion annually, according to federal officials, due to lost productivity and expenses tied to health care and criminal justice.

STAT notes that the US already spends about $36 billion per year on substance use disorder treatment, yet only 10% of the estimated 2.2 million Americans with opioid use disorder actually get help, according to a 2016 report by former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.  

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr